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Cultural cohesion, p.54
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       Cultural Cohesion, p.54

           Clive James
 

  It is worth pausing at this juncture to say that in a few paragraphs Wilbur has not only raised, but to a large extent settled, theoretical points which more famous critical savants have pursued to the extent of whole essays. In Lectures in America Dr. Leavis argues, with crushing intransigence, that Yeats’s poetry needs too much ancillary apparatus to explain it, so that when you get right down to it there are only three poems in Yeats’s entire oeuvre which earn the status of a “fully achieved thing.” Wilbur takes the same point exactly as far as it should be taken, which is nowhere near as far. Possessing tact himself, he can see Yeats’s lack of it, but correctly supposes this to be a local fault, not a typical one. If Dr. Leavis is unable to consider such a possibility, perhaps it might be of interest to Professor Donoghue, who in a recent issue of the New York Review of Books was to be heard complaining about Yeats’s limitations at some length. It is a bit steep when an academic who devotes half his life to a dead poet starts doubting the poet’s merits instead of questioning the effects of his own bookishness.

  As for Wilbur’s reference to Milton, well, it is very relevant to some of the positions adopted by Dr. Steiner, whose important gift of transmitting his enthusiasm for the culture of the past seriously overstepped itself in Milton’s case. Perhaps goaded by the misplaced self-confidence of a student generation who not only knew nothing about the history of civilization but had erected their doltishness into an ideology, Dr. Steiner declared that you couldn’t tell what was going on in Paradise Lost unless you were intimate with the classical literature to which Milton was alluding. Wilbur’s fleeting look at this very topic helps remind us that Dr. Steiner got it wrong two ways at once. If you did have to know about those things, then Milton would not deserve his reputation. But you don’t have to know, since the allusions merely reinforce what Milton is tactful enough to make plain.

  Such matters are important to criticism and crucial to pedagogy. For all Dr. Steiner’s good intentions, it is easy to imagine students being scared off if they are told that they can’t hope to read an English poet without first mastering classical literature. Wilbur’s approach, while being no less concerned about the universality of culture, at least offers the ignoramus some hope. Anyway, Wilbur simply happens to be right: poets allude to the past (his essay “Poetry’s Debt to Poetry” shows that all revolutions in art are palace revolutions) but if they are original at all then they will make their first appeal on a level which demands of the reader no more than an ability to understand the language. Which nowadays is demanding a lot, but let that pass.

  “Poetry and Happiness” is another richly suggestive piece of work. Wilbur talks of a primitive desire that is radical to poetry, “the desire to lay claim to as much of the world as possible through uttering the names of things.” Employing the same gift for metaphysical precision which he demonstrates elsewhere in his essay on Emily Dickinson, Wilbur is able to show what forms this desire usually takes and how it affects the poet’s proverbial necessity to “find himself.” I don’t think it is too facetious to suggest that this might be a particularly touchy subject for Wilbur. Complaining about the lack of unity in American culture, he seems really to be talking about his own difficulties in writing about the American present with the same unforced originality—finding yourself—which marked his earlier poems about Europe.

  In the following essay, a fascinating piece (indispensable for the student of his poems) called “On My Own Work,” he rephrases the complaint as a challenge. “Yet the incoherence of America need not enforce a stance of alienation on the poet: rather, it may be seen as placing on him a peculiar imaginative burden.” It is a nice point whether Wilbur has ever really taken that burden up. I am inclined to think that he has not, and that the too typical quietness of his later work (“characteristic,” in the sense Randall Jarrell meant when he decided that Wallace Stevens had fallen to copying himself) represents a great loss to all of us. But we ought to learn to be appropriately grateful for what we have been given, before we start complaining about what has been taken away.

  “It is one mark of the good critic,” Wilbur observes, “that he abstains from busywork.” Except for the essays on Poe, which tend to be repetitive, this whole collection has scarcely a superfluous sentence. When Wilbur’s critical sense lapses, it is usually through kindness. He makes as good a case as can be made for Theodore Roethke’s openness to influence, calling admirable what he should see to be crippling. But even full-time critics can be excused for an occasional disinclination to tell the cruel truth, and on the whole this is a better book of criticism than we can logically expect a poet to come up with. If there is a gulf between English and American literature in modern times, at least there are some interesting bridges over it. The critical writings produced by some of the best American poets form one of those bridges. Tate, Berryman, Jarrell, John Peale Bishop, Edmund Wilson—those among them who were primarily critics were still considerable poets, and those among them who were primarily poets have yet managed to produce some of the most humane criticism we possess. With this superlative book, Richard Wilbur takes a leading place among their number.

  New Statesman, 1977; later included in

  From the Land of Shadows, 1982

  POSTSCRIPT

  It was no surprise that the kamikaze aspect of the American poetic career as exemplified by Lowell, Berryman and Sylvia Plath should make a journalistic splash in Britain. More worrying was that an established literary figure like A. Alvarez—who as poetry editor of the Observer wielded almost American powers of dispensation—should write critical articles reinforcing the notion that a near-suicidal commitment was a guarantee of seriousness. In the introduction to his influential Penguin anthology The New Poetry, Alvarez marked Lowell high at Larkin’s expense, on the assumption that Larkin, who made fewer explicit mentions of the modern world’s horrors, had found no artistic response to them. I thought that this was a false critical emphasis even when applied solely to the American picture.

  I had already learned to admire Wilbur, and later on, with the encouragement of Frank Kermode, I finally got around to reading Anthony Hecht, and felt the same admiration all over again. Here were the quiet Americans who had put everything into creation, with nothing left over for self-destruction. Perhaps it was just another sign of America’s world-girdling cultural hegemony that even its atypical products should have such range and influence, but it seemed only good manners to be thankful.

  Wilbur, in particular, was a blessing. The right man at the right time, he was a reminder that the Americans who had been flung abroad by World War II could bring back the world into their work, absorbing it without lowering its value. Wilbur, in the best poems of Things of This World and The Beautiful Changes, absorbed Europe the way Hecht absorbed Japan in his masterful lyric “Japan.” In each case, the artistic representative of the victorious power brought to a defeated, occupied country the sensitivity that would honour its real heritage. Each poet was a virtuoso of the intricate, self-invented stanza that replicated itself exactly for the length of the poem, magically refilling itself with meaning each time, like the goblet of Fortunatus. The evidence already suggests that in the long run what will count, for its international effect, is more likely to be that kind of elegant control than Lowell’s “raw meat hooked from the living steer.”

  Looking back earlier into the twentieth century, we find that it was by no means a rare thing for American poets to match European formality at its own game. There are several poems by Elinor Wylie (try “Wild Peaches” just for a start) in which you can already hear Wilbur. But it was Wilbur, I am sure, who, in that period of concussion after World War II when a stunned planet waited upon America, spread to the whole of the English-speaking world this uniquely American manner of incorporating and re-energizing the tradition of the well-made poem.

  As of this writing, I have just discovered the poetry of Stephen Edgar, who has spent decades in Hobart writing poems that have hardly made him famous even in Mel
bourne. In the best sense, his work is too polyphonic in its own right to betray a primary influence, but I doubt if it would have its bewitchingly exact joinery if the post-war American formal masters had not taught the lessons by example. The lessons go back through the entire tradition of those English lyrics that compound their emotional, observational and intellectual force with the enchantment of their construction. At least as old as Marvell’s dew-drop or the rare birth of his love, the effect is of a dexterity of technique that offers solace without declining into an emollient.

  Anthony Burgess once suggested, in Nothing Like the Sun, that Shakespeare found the inspiration for the enchanted language of A Midsummer Night’s Dream by watching a slow execution at Tyburn. The devastation in Europe drove Wilbur to write “First Snow in Alsace” and “A Baroque Wall-Fountain in the Villa Sciarra.” Poems like that still seem to me the best way of dealing with the poisonous memories left to us by the Nazis. Another possible poetic response to the knowledge that millions of people have been gassed is to gas yourself, but whether a poet offers proof of sincerity by doing so is a question that Wilbur’s post-war lyrics ask penetratingly by their mere existence.

  2003

  37

  THESE STAGGERING

  QUESTIONS

  Critical Understanding: The Powers and Limits

  of Pluralism by Wayne Booth

  Previous books by Wayne C. Booth, especially The Rhetoric of Fiction, have been well received in the academic world. Since it first made its appearance in the early 1960s, The Rhetoric of Fiction has gone on to establish itself as a standard work—a touchstone of sanity. Probably the same thing will happen to the book under review. Critical Understanding is such a civilized treatise that I felt guilty about being bored stiff by it.

  I had better say at the outset that I didn’t find The Rhetoric of Fiction too thrilling either. A prodigious range of learning is expressed in hearteningly straightforward prose, but the effect is to leave you wondering what special use there is in presenting the student with yet another codified list of rhetorical devices. Separated from the works of fiction in which Professor Booth has so ably detected them, these devices are lifeless except as things to be memorized for the passing of examinations. There is also a strong chance that any student who spends much time studying rhetorical devices will not read the works of fiction, or will read them with his attention unnaturally focussed on technical concerns.

  Worrying about what students might do is the kind of activity which such books—even when they are as well done as Professor Booth’s—inevitably arouse. But any student who could get seriously interested in Critical Understanding would have to be potty or else old before his time. You can’t help wondering why it is thought to be good that the study of literature should so tax the patience. After all, literature doesn’t. Boring you rigid is just what literature sets out not to do.

  It could be said that abstract speculation about literature is an activity impossible to stop, so that we should give thanks to see a few pertinent books cropping up among the impertinent ones. It could be said, to the contrary, that the whole business should be allowed to sink under its own weight. By now the latter argument looks the more attractive, if for no other reason than that life is very short. But for the moment let us assume that good books like this are justified in their existence by the corrective they offer to bad books like this. Let us be grateful for Booth’s civilized manner and powers of assimilation. The question then arises about whether his argument makes any sense in its own terms.

  Critical Understanding purports to help us think coherently about “the immensely confusing world of contemporary literary criticism.” There is nothing immensely, or even mildly, confusing about the world of contemporary literary criticism. The world of contemporary literary criticism does not exist. There is only criticism—an activity which goes on. It goes on in various ways; ways which it suits Professor Booth’s book to call “modes”; “modes” which he thinks are hard to reconcile with one another, so that a world of confusion is generated, to which we need a guide. He is a very patient guide, but in the long run it is usually not wise to thank someone for offering to clarify an obfuscation which he is in fact helping to create.

  Critical “modes” have no independent existence worth bothering about. They are not like the various branches of science—an analogy Professor Booth seems always to be making in some form or other, even while strenuously claiming to eschew it. The various branches of science are impersonal in the sense that anybody qualified can pursue them. But a critical “mode” is never anything except an emphasis, usually a false one. It is an expression of the critic’s personality. The critical personality is the irreducible entity in criticism just as the artistic personality is the irreducible entity in art. Critical “modes” can be reconciled with one another only by taking the personality out of them. Since there is no way of doing this without depriving them of content, they remain irreconcilable. You can call it confusion if you like, but to worry about it is a waste of time.

  Professor Booth has all the time in the world. There is not room in this article or indeed in the whole paper to demonstrate by quotation his strolling expansiveness of argument. To summarize his line of thought is like trying to scoop air into a heap. But as far as I understand Critical Understanding, it offers pluralism as the solution to the alleged problem of reconciling the various critical “modes.” Three versions of pluralism are examined, belonging respectively to Ronald S. Crane, Kenneth Burke and M. H. Abrams. Professor Booth does his best, at terrific length, to reconcile these three different pluralisms with each other, but finally they don’t seem able to settle down together except within the even bigger and better pluralism which is Professor Booth’s own.

  In Professor Booth’s amiably loquacious style of discourse very little goes without saying, but if anything were to, it would be that pluralism is better than monism. Professor Booth defines his terms with both rigour and subtlety. Trying to convey his definitions in a sentence or two, one is bound to play fast and loose. But as far as I can tell, a monist believes in his own “mode” and can’t see the point of anybody else’s. The pluralist might favour a “mode” of his own but he is able to admit that the other fellow’s “mode” might have something in it. I keep putting quotation marks around “mode,” not just because of my uncertainty as to what a “mode” is, but because of strong doubts about whether there is any such thing. I suspect a critical “mode” is a critical method. If it is, then it is necessary to insist once again that there is really no such thing. There is just criticism, an activity to which various critics contribute. It is neither monism nor pluralism to say this: it is just realism. A critic’s method might help him to find things out but we don’t wait for his method to collapse before deciding that he is talking rubbish. Nor is it our method that detects faults in his method. We reason about his reasoning, and that’s it.

  Professor Booth’s pluralism has a plural nature of its own, alas. When he means by pluralism that there is a multiplicity of valid critical modes or methods and that some of these might be irreconcilable, I am afraid he does not mean much. When he means by pluralism that the only real critical mode or method, criticism, is pursued in different ways and areas by various critics, he means something, even if not a lot. The latter interpretation of the word, however, would not yield up a long book, or even a long article. The first interpretation has the advantage of providing limitless opportunities to burble on. It offers all the dangerous excitement of the Uncertainty Principle.

  Professor Booth is an accredited pundit and I am not, so he knows at least as well as I do that the theory of Relativity in physics lends no support to the concept of relativism in metaphysics. No relativist could have come up with Relativity. Einsteinian physics are no excuse for treating reality as a piece of elastic. Nor is the Uncertainty Principle any excuse for thinking that a proposition can hover between true and false. Einstein didn’t like the Uncertainty Principle very much, b
elieving that the Old One does not play dice. Unable to arrive at a Unified Field theory which would reconcile his own theories with other theories which seemed equally powerful, he was constrained to see his own proofs within a pluralist frame. For Professor Booth, this fact is too tempting to resist. Try as he might, he can’t help suggesting that Einstein found certain lines of inquiry inconsistent with one another. He wishes his own pluralism on Einstein.

  But Einstein’s pluralism, in so far as it existed, had nothing to do with finding certain lines of inquiry irreconcilable with one another. He never gave up on the possibility of a Unified Field. He just gave up on his own chances of finding it. Einstein believed that there was only one mode or method of scientific enquiry—scientific enquiry.

  Different things which had been uncovered by scientific enquiry might be hard to match up with each other—hard even for him—but there was no reason to think that scientific enquiry would not be able to match them up eventually, although probably part of the result would be to open fresh gaps. That was the extent of Einstein’s pluralism. It was the humble admission, by a supremely realistic thinker, that not everything could be done at once by one person. It had nothing to do with superficially exciting notions about the irreconcilability of modes. Einstein thought too concretely to get interested in stuff like that.

  Lesser minds are perhaps more susceptible. Pluralism might be on the verge of becoming a fad, like ecology or macrobiotic diet. Beyond that, it could easily become a cult, like Scientology. It would be a pity to see Einstein posthumously co-opted into the role of L. Ron Hubbard. The same thing could happen to Sir Isaiah Berlin, who has been getting praise in the reviews for his alleged pluralism. To a certain extent he has brought this on himself, for appearing to be impressed by Machiavelli’s discovery of incompatible moralities. Machiavelli thought, among other things, that the Prince needed to be cruel in order to be kind—in other words, that ends justified means. When it comes to practice, the evidence in favour of this proposition is not noticeably better than the evidence against it, especially if Italy is your field of study. Anyway for the decent politician there is no choice: he tries to do the liberal thing in small matters as in large, just as Sir Isaiah himself would, if he was put in charge of a state.

 
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